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Tech tools for teaching in a classroom during a pandemic

A handful of gadgets can make working in a classroom a lot easier

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The Chromecast with Google TV makes it easy to play content in front of a class without occupying your laptop.
Photo by Philip Berne for The Verge

The last year of lockdown and learning from home was undoubtedly the most challenging year for teachers in a generation. Now that students are returning to class, we face new challenges. Students hide behind their masks. Understaffing and last-minute changes require us to be more flexible. The transition from “going to school” in pajamas on the couch to physically going to school is exhausting, and engagement is low. Frankly, it’s quiet. Too quiet.

Here are some of my favorite tools that I’ve purchased this year to overcome the COVID doldrums. If you are a teacher with some classroom funds to spend, or if you know teachers who could use a tech boost, this is what I recommend.

Every time a student gives an impassioned answer and I have to tell them I couldn’t hear it, I see their enthusiasm crushed. Karaoke gear, like the M37 microphone with Bluetooth from Miracle Karaoke, can be a fun solution — but be very sensitive introducing these to the class. Students haven’t been required to speak up in a classroom in front of their peers for more than a year, and there will be anxiety to overcome.

These microphones have solid battery life and a built-in speaker, but they also pair via Bluetooth if you prefer. You might not bother with the karaoke sound effects, but there is a sweet little disco-ball light that attaches to the bottom if you want to make class more festive.

When I need to project my voice through a mask to the back of the room, this amazing little HW Haoworks speaker box is the device I wear. The microphone comes paired via UHF, so it’s much clearer and more reliable than a Bluetooth headset, though you can also switch to Bluetooth if you desire.

The speaker itself is water resistant, has a long-lasting battery, and is packed with useful features. My favorite: it can hold a microSD card to record instruction for students who are absent. I wear the boom microphone under my mask, and with the foam sock, it transmits my voice without too much breath noise.

Harman Kardon SoundSticks are special. There are better speakers you can buy for less, but I consider the premium a room decoration expense. When students come to class and see the SoundSticks positioned in the front, with the jellyfish subwoofer beneath the screen, they are immediately engaged. They want to hear what happens next, and that curiosity is worth the price.

I prefer the older version with a 3.5mm headphone plug to the newer Bluetooth model. Bluetooth and teaching do not mix well. Nothing kills the momentum of a class like a tech failure, and Bluetooth is the Viking king of tech failures.

Here is my splurge, the Nebula by Mars II projector, because I had an Amazon gift card and further justified when I decided to take on sponsorship of my school’s Anime Club. These COVID times call for flexibility, and not every classroom I use has a smart screen or all of the connections I need to show my lesson. I carry my projector to create a pop-up classroom wherever I am.

The Nebula by Anker Mars II projector is just a bit bigger than the soda-can-sized Anker Nebula Capsule projectors, and it pumps out a ton more light. The speaker is good enough for impromptu classes in a hallway or an adjunct trailer.

There are some major caveats. It runs Android 7, though you can obviously just plug your source (likely a laptop, but a streaming stick works, too) directly into the HDMI port instead of using an app to show videos. Some video services like Netflix and Peacock will not let you stream using an external HDMI source.

Get one of these Anker PowerPort Cubes and put it near your desk. When students need to charge, you get three power outlets for Chromebooks and three USB ports for phones. I find that often the students who frequently need to charge their equipment are the same students I want sitting closer to my desk for extra supervision.

It only took a couple of cuts with a colleague’s Cricut to know I wanted one. I picked up the Cricut Explore Air 2 because it’s available for a good price and it can make everything I would ever purchase to decorate my classroom. Decorations are a huge expense and a shopping hassle. Teacher stores never have exactly the message you need to convey, or you need to buy multiple packs of letters and stickers just to complete a thought. With the Cricut, you can cut only what you really need.

I started by creating decorations and learning stations, cutting letters and shapes out of colored paper. Then I moved on to labeling and decorating my class with vinyl transfer. My next project will be to create customized T-shirts that I can wear on specific lesson days. I bought this Cricut at the start of the school year, and every day I look around and think of something new I want to cut that night.

One important note, you don’t need to buy all Cricut-branded accessories, so if you shop for a Cricut don’t bother with the bundles. Every accessory tool Cricut offers is available from other manufacturers for half price or less.

With a handy Google Chromecast with Google TV, I don’t need to connect my laptop to show content to students, and there are many reasons that’s a good thing. My laptop performs better when it isn’t mirroring. I don’t have to worry about notifications popping up at the wrong time. Plus, I can set up my Chromecast with all of my accounts in advance at home to save time and avoid sticky firewall problems.

Using my 5G phone as a hotspot, I get enough data throughput to show videos from YouTube or Netflix, or to play Crunchyroll when hosting my Anime Club. I have Roku devices at home and I love those as well, but for my school, I chose a Google device because our school accounts are Google-based.

Philip Berne is a technology writer and a high school English teacher near Washington, DC.